The message of this article is simple: the Second Vatican Council lives, and we are bound to sustain it. The council lives because the impulse of the Spirit that “caused” the council continues in the community at large. The Catholics of today, therefore, ought to call out daily Adsumus, that is, “We are present,” just as the bishops in St. Peter’s Basilica cried out at the beginning of every session. The invocation indicates the willingness of the community to be open to the Spirit and to do the work of the Spirit.
Such an approach relies on the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” which affirms that “the holy people of God…anointed by the holy One...[remains] attached unfailingly to the faith, penetrates it more deeply through correct judgment and applies it more fully to life” (No. 12). An equivalent formulation could be: God’s people own the Tradition, are unfailingly faithful to it and have the capacity to order their lives accordingly. By a subtle divine law, the faithful of today are the legitimate heirs of the council. If so, they are bound to continue the council’s quest for a fuller understanding of faith and to work for the renewal of the church in a practical way.
To better understand our situation today, it may be helpful to look at it through the lens of the biblical parable of the sower (Mk 4:1-9). The council was the sower; now we are the laborers in God’s own household. Fifty years later in God’s plantation, we are surrounded by varied scenery. Here and there seeds contend with rocks and struggle to strike roots. In other places tender plants push for space to expand; elsewhere, growing trees reach for nourishing sun and warm rain. It is a rich ambiance, no doubt, and an intricate one; the multiplicity of the creatures on the ground demands alert caretakers with wisdom and expertise. Fifty years after the council, our destiny and obligation are to take stock of what we inherited from the council and to continue its work, not as a council in the technical sense but as a synod, synodos, in the old Christian sense—the community of those who are marching on the same road toward the same promised land.
The Long March
At the beginning of the postconciliar years, the future looked bright and promising. On Dec. 8, 1965, Yves Congar, O.P., one of the leading theologians at the council, wrote in his diary: “Today the church is sent into the world, to the nations, to the peoples. It is a beginning, not in Jerusalem but in Rome. The Council will explode in the world. For the Council, this is the day of Pentecost foretold by John XXIII” (author’s translation). Father Congar’s imagination was inspired by the history of the first century. Within a few decades after the Pentecost in Jerusalem, the Gospel message exploded far and wide in the Roman Empire.
Today many thoughtful people see something else: the council’s impact is waning. What was once celebrated as a momentous event is now redefined as insignificant. We hear their questions no matter where we turn. Here are some examples:
What happened to the liturgy? The council intended to renew it by reaching back to old and rich traditions, but in place of embracing the conciliar initiative, we see a return to the Tridentine form. In many locations, the people must contend with rival celebrations at the same time and place. This is something unheard of in Catholic history. The sacrament of unity is dividing communities.
What happened to synodality? The Orthodox churches, our sister churches, are sending messages that no unity between East and West is conceivable unless we Westerners are willing to return to an ancient tradition of government where synodality and primacy operate in a balanced harmony. Surely this is not a demand that would “smell” of schism or heresy. Why then not seek unity—even at the price of our nonessential practices?
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the council, why are we mandated and urged to study the Catechism of the Catholic Church and not the documents of the Second Vatican Council? The catechism deserves respect; each part of it has the authority of the source of that part. But why are we spending our time and energy on the disparate sources of the catechism when we could study (should study) the proclamations of a council that—as the church teaches—was assisted by the Spirit?
These questions are legitimate, but even if the questions were incorrect, they deserve a considered response. Behind the inquiry, an honest conscience may be searching for the light of truth.
Between the conflicting moods (exulting hope and gloomy depression), let us return to the parable of the sower. It should help us gain a more wholesome perspective. Father Congar sensed the divine force in the seed, but he forgot that the soil could be rocky and unreceptive even in God’s field, the church. Nor did he think of the enemies who may sow weeds among the wheat (Mt 13:24-30). Nonetheless, in substance he was right. The word of God as it was proclaimed at the council was full of restless energy. Eventually it will explode, in God’s own appointed time.
Those who today are depressed by the slow pace of renewal and are asking “What happened?” may need to recall that within the kingdom, human measures do not work well. The struggle of the truth for recognition may be slow by our measure, and it may try our patience. Good ideas, however, are resilient and assertive; when expelled they tend to return. And the impulse of the Spirit cannot be halted.
Today, as laborers on God’s own estate, we find ourselves in vastly different circumstances from those of 50 years ago. We are able to assess to a fair extent how far the implementation of the council has progressed; we can make some calculations as to what more is needed. We are called to cooperate. Of course, as we enter into such a holy adventure, we should be aware that we may not see the result of our work. We may not be among the harvesters. That, however, is not the issue. The issue is in fulfilling our own modest role in a divine play in our allotted time; we must promote a good cause according to our capacity and with the ways and means available to us.
The question we need to ask is: What should we do to help the council’s work flourish and expand? We should promote the right environment for healthy developments, and we should press for some basic improvements in the church’s constitutional operations and structures. Much that follows here can be done within the existing laws. For the right environment we need trust in the Spirit, the capacity for friendly debates and an air of freedom in God’s field. Without trust in the Holy Spirit and each other our efforts would be in vain. The council was born from the trust of Pope John XXIII in the Holy Spirit. He said so from the first announcement of the council, and later he confirmed it by talking about a new Pentecost. He was aware that the Spirit alone had the intelligence and the strength to hold such an assembly together and to make it productive. Later, when the participants rejected most of the preparatory work over which he presided, he trusted the bishops (and rejoiced). He sensed the Spirit behind their movements, and he kept learning from them while he guided them.
Friendly debates only flourish in an atmosphere of trust. Without friendly debates, there is little progress in the understanding of faith. In recent decades, we all have become familiar with the utterly serious lecturer in theology who delivers the last word on a delicate matter. But a solitary thinker can hardly be a Christian theologian. The reason is that God imparted his revelation to a community; no one single person was ever privileged to hold it all in his or her own memory. Truth reveals itself through conversations in the community.
Meaningful conversations or debates can take place only in an atmosphere of freedom. When fear takes possession of human minds and hearts, the dignity of the persons is diminished. They will be reluctant to talk about their struggles and their combat with good and evil spirits. They become muted or, worse, they hide behind double talk. When such a camouflage happens in a community, friendly debates become extinct. Once we achieve a climate of trust in the divine and we have cheerful disputations among ourselves in an atmosphere of freedom, then we can better focus on some of the pressing needs of the church in the coming decades. Such needs are: a more intense awareness among the bishops of their own calling, a new way of doing justice and a more intense participation of the baptized but not ordained in the government of the community.
Concerning bishops. The constitution on the church contains a sentence that has been commented on abundantly in the theoretical order, but in the practical order does not seem to have had much impact. It reads, “Episcopal consecration, together with the office of sanctifying, also confers the office of teaching and of governing, which, however, of its very nature, can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college” (No. 21, translation from the Vatican Web site).
In ordinary language, this means that the Holy Spirit is the one who (through the sacrament of orders) gives the bishop the power to shepherd his flock; then, afterwards, the pope assigns the person so endowed to a particular diocese. It follows that every bishop, first and foremost, is accountable to the Holy Spirit. This hierarchy lays the ground for a healthy equilibrium in the administration of the community; the pope is the principle of unity and the bishops are the representatives of diversity. No bishop in his diocese can ever be a mere executive officer of the pope. No pope can function well without the help of his brother bishops.
Concerning the administration of justice. The 1983 edition of the Code of Canon law carefully enumerates and solemnly affirms the rights of the faithful. But as lawyers well know, no declaration of rights is worth much unless it is backed up by courts that have the necessary autonomy to operate, are seen to do justice, work without undue delays and have the means to enforce their judgment. Admittedly, we have ecclesiastical courts, but there is need for much improvement in the administration of justice.
Concerning the baptized, nonordained faithful. Last, but truly not least, the church needs to bring the laity into its organizational and governmental operations far more than it has done thus far. Among them immense and diverse gifts of nature and grace are lying fallow and so do not benefit the Christian community. This is all because of a doctrinal position taken unnecessarily by the drafters of Canon 129: “Lay members of the Christian faithful can cooperate in the exercise of the power [of governance] according to the norm of law.” Note the canon says “cooperate,” not “participate”—a world of difference. The former calls for passive obedience, the latter for active contribution. This view has no justification in tradition beyond the basic rule that a layperson cannot participate in the sacramental power given by ordination. For many activities in church government no anointing is necessary. Radical exclusion of the laity is a novelty in the church’s 2,000 years of history. The best witnesses against the new rule would be the Byzantine emperors and empresses (surely not ordained); they called all the ecumenical councils in the first millennium. This was participation in church governance if ever there was any.
Fifty years after the council, the point of this article is not so much to celebrate the past as to look to the future. Its point of departure is in the diagnosis: the council lives and its vital signs can be seen all around. The task of our generation is to labor in the field of God, nourish the plants and support the fledgling trees. As for the rest? Let us leave it to the Lord of the harvest.
Ladislas Orsy talks on Skype about the vision of Vatican II.